Harriet Atkinson’s new book The Festival of Britain: A Land and its People (IB Taurus) revisits the celebrations of 1951, exploring the various ways in which the Festival served as a reimagination of Britain’s geography and landscape.
The book’s front cover reproduces Eric Fraser’s Verdant Isle, in which Abram Games’s Festival emblem hovers, Skylon-like, over the nation, pinpointing somewhere in the heart of the midlands. While the precise coordinates of the emblem’s landing point are unspecified, the image carries connotations of that other famous artistic elision of geography and patriotism, the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I, where the monarch’s toe points to Oxfordshire.
By recalibrating the national centre of gravity away from London, the image also reminds us that the Festival of Britain was always intended to be much more than its main showroom at the South Bank. As well as the architecture and events of the capital, there were exhibitions in Glasgow and Belfast, a travelling show carried on lorries to Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham, and cultural programming across a great many other regional cities.
The Festival, as the current exhibition on ‘British Design 1948 to 2012’ at the V&A also observes, was therefore much more than merely a metropolitan affair. It was nothing less than a bold and optimistic vision of the future of the entire country and its landscape, built on a sensitive appreciation of the past.
Those involved in planning and building the Festival, among them Patrick Abercrombie, Hugh Casson and Gordon Cullen, chose not to import an alien modernism but explicitly harked back to earlier ideas of the Picturesque to ensure that their designs respected the genius loci or ‘spirit of place’.
|The picturesque in 1951|
Atkinson reminds us that this ‘new Picturesque’ was a deliberate evocation of 18th-century principles laid out by, among others, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight. While Price and Knight had essayed their aversion to the sweeping vistas and identikit forms of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s parklands, their own vision of the picturesque demanded attention to the local and the particular, as well as the painterly qualities of natural landscapes. (These ideas are explored in a new biography of Uvedale Price, written by Charles Watkins and me, to be published next month.)
|Richard Payne Knight|
By the 1920s and 30s, influential writers on architecture and landscape, among them Christopher Hussey and Nikolaus Pevsner, were consciously revisiting such Georgian visionaries in an attempt to reassert the value of sensitive design in the process of laying out landscapes. Snubbing their immediate Victorian and Edwardian forebears, these writers looked to the 18th-century as the golden age of British design, and hence reinterpreted the Picturesque for post-war British urban renewal.
Above all, the emphasis was on sensitive appreciation of landscape in all its deeply layered complexity. The landscaping and design of the South Bank Centre was carried out with attention to geology, topology, archaeology and natural history. The construction process was itself regarded as an archaeological exercise, and Jacquetta Hawkes was employed to curate the displays in the People of Britain Pavilion. (Her classic, A Land, the subject of a recent article by Robert Macfarlane, was written while she worked on the 1951 Festival. It is shortly to be republished.)
Meanwhile, the Exhibition of Live Architecture was located at Poplar in east London, as a demonstration of how Picturesque principles of planning were being put into effect on the Lansbury estate. Celebrations of the new towns that were being constructed after the 1946 Act drew attention to the way old buildings were being incorporated into new designs. As Atkinson notes, ‘All emphasized continuity between the historic past and new developments’ (p.179), just as the new Picturesque proponents on the Architectural Review had called in the 1940s for bombed-out ruins to be reincorporated as public monuments.
The optimists of 1951 hoped that the Picturesque eye would help to reconcile modernity with the landscape, teaching us (as Barbara Colvin suggested) to see beauty in ‘windmills and certain transmission towers’.
Some of these visions of the future may now seem hopelessly old fashioned. It is somewhat surprising to us these days to find Pevsner identifying Harlow Town Centre as the epitome of ‘Picturesque Principles applied to urban conditions’. Clearly, sixty years of planning disasters have taken their toll. All too often, the past has been razed without proper consideration. The utopian dreams that informed the layout of so many new housing estates and indeed wholesale urban settlements have been shown to be just that – dreams, little taking account of the realities of people’s emotional response to place.
But might we yet reincorporate a sense of the Picturesque into our modern-day planning? The National Planning Policy Framework remains a resolutely unPicturesque statement, drawing as it does on so many abstract concepts and assertions (starting from that most anti-Picturesque of notions, sustainable development). Yet the emphasis on the primacy of the local is a fundamentally Picturesque idea.
Local plans that start from the genius loci or ‘spirit of place’, and which assert the importance of retaining local colour and character even while providing for new homes and businesses, may yet manage to retain the Picturesque delight in place, character, and the infinitive nuances of landscape.